As the Calvin Klein label turns forty, Wonderland catches up with womenswear designer Francisco Costa to talk Brooke Shields, bell-bottoms and filling Calvin’s big shoes.
When Francisco Costa left his family home in rural Brazil in 1981 for the bright lights of New York City, he was a wet-behind-the-ears 20 year old who didn’t speak a word of English. But he had a dream: he was determined to work in the fashion industry. Fashion was in his blood; his mother, Maria-Francisca – whose death prompted Costa’s move to the States – owned a children’s wear factory where he worked after school. And even as an industrious teenager, her clothes-mad son organised fashion shows for local charities.
Once on American soil, this unrelenting work ethic stood the young Costa in good stead – by day he took language classes; and by night he trained at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Twenty years of being in the right place at the right time later, he bagged the top job at Calvin Klein. Taking over from Klein could have been like accepting a poisoned chalice. But the Brazilian has more than proved himself. He has maintained the brand’s minimal aesthetic whilst injecting cutting-edge design and luxury fabrics. He has transformed a company best known for its jeans and underwear advertising into a catwalk fixture. And, perhaps most impressively, he has emerged from Klein’s shadow as a designer in his own right.
Costa himself isn’t having any of it. “My legacy here is miniscule compared to what Calvin has done,” claims the self-deprecating 47-year-old. “It’s just like an update deal.”
What was your first fashion moment?
Very scary. It was the early 70s and I was invited to spend a week with my uncle and aunt because there was a state fair on with horses and cows. Anyway, I insisted on getting a new wardrobe. So I went to the seamstress in my tiny hometown and had a burgundy wool gabardine safari suit made, with bell-bottoms and a belt. My cousins were looking at me like, ‘Who is this freak?’ It was so embarrassing. I should have learnt then!
How did you get to where you are today?
Work, work, work. In New York I enrolled on a language course at Hunter College – I couldn’t understand a word the teacher was saying. Then I entered a contest at the Fashion Institute of Technology and won a scholarship. My first break was a job with the head designer for Bill Blass. It was owned by a major company then, called the He-Ro Group, who promoted me to assistant designer at Oscar de la Renta. When they folded, Oscar invited me to work with him at Balmain. Then I got a call from Gucci to meet with Tom Ford one morning. I didn’t have enough time to get a portfolio together but Tom said, ‘I’d love you to come in with me. Get a lawyer!’ A year before leaving Gucci, Calvin called me up.
Why do you think you got the Calvin Klein job?
I know that Calvin was bored at the time. He wanted something different. I think he wanted something fun, and my background was very diverse.
How did you grow into the Calvin Klein brand?
By making mistakes! I could never recreate what Calvin has done and it would be mediocre of me to try. I just go on. The collection I just showed was tailored. Last season was all about dresses. I’ve evolved. That’s how we do it.
How did you feel about taking over from such a legend?
I never felt it. I worked with him for a year and a half, then the company got sold and immediately most of the studio left. I had so much work ahead of me that it was all about getting the next collection out. There wasn’t time to think.
How would you explain the label’s forty years at the top?
The label will never die because it is amazing. PVH (Phillips-Van Heusen) that owns Calvin Klein is like 130 years old… what I have to do is bring it forward. Respect the past, but move things on. In a way, I feel like we’re just starting out.
How will fashion change in the next forty years?
I think it will go through a tough period. I feel like I want to say fashion won’t exist. Seasons won’t, that’s for sure…
Is it accurate to describe the Calvin Klein aesthetic as ‘minimal’?
I think it is so much more than that. Calvin is thought of as an American minimalist because he took that position later. But he never would have been if he hadn’t explored other phases first. He was a reductionist; it came down to editing. Today the word ‘minimal’ is less relevant. It’s about creating a product that ages well.
What was the most important lesson he taught you?
He was very curious and very excited about the process. He was very genuine in his approach to everything. He loved fabric. I’ve never experienced that with anybody else. We would go and spend weeks looking at fabric. It was insane. Like a fabric lobotomy.
Who was your favourite Calvin Klein poster boy or girl?
Brooke Shields was a huge influence. I was still living in Brazil when the whole thing started and she would come on television in those commercials and was the craziest, sexiest thing. I didn’t know who Calvin was, really. But Brooke we knew from those incredible commercials – “There’s nothing between me and my Calvins.” Of course I remember Marky Mark’s body all over New York City too.
Is New York still vital to the Calvin Klein brand?
I think so. There’s a coolness and openness about it. It’s full of action, full of movement. Calvin was a very New York person.
What has been your favourite collection for Calvin Klein so far?
My favourite collection is Spring 2009. It’s very challenging. It wasn’t the most commercial but I had fun doing it. It sounds pretentious but for Spring the clothes had an identity. Everything had a pulse; they had a personality and a sense of humour. They had energy. I took pictures of my previous collection, cut them up, then mixed them up like a puzzle. I moved the shapes around to create different things then tried to make that happen in reality.
How important is it to push boundaries with silhouette and construction?
Very. As a concept becomes reality you have to take it all the way. Maybe we don’t do it enough but we try. It’s very much a Calvin trait. Calvin was all about the future. He used to tell me: ‘There’s nothing that is right, and there’s nothing that is wrong. It’s the timing that makes it work. Don’t get intimidated, look forward.’ That was his curiosity coming through. What’s new? What’s next? How do we do it? I love that.
Portrait: Beau Grealy
Photography: Kent Larsson
Words: Ben Perdue
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #17, Feb/Mar 2009